Georgian Military highway: a travel guide
The Georgian Military highway is one of the most scenic high altitude road trips in Europe. Crossing the majestic Caucasus mountain range it offers superb views on the snow capped mountain peaks from the comfort of your car. Furthermore there are lots of interesting places to visit on the Georgian Military highway. From Ancient monasteries to churches, fortresses, watch towers and mineral springs.
A history of the Georgian Military highway
The Georgian Military highway is just over 200 kilometers long and connects Tbilisi in Georgia with Vladikavkaz in Russia. Already in the first century BC this route was used by traders and invaders to cross the greater caucasus on their way from Europe to Asia. However, there wasn’t much of a road to speak of.
It was only in the 18th century that the Russians built a crude horse carriage trail. Much later it was paved and bridges were built. Around the same time the Russians also built an alternative road. The Ossetian Military highway connects South Ossetia with North Ossetia. This road is nowadays rarely used due to the construction of the Roki tunnel and the conflict in Ossetia.
The Georgian Military highway is now the main road connecting Russia with Georgia, Armenia and Turkey. Lorries wind their way up the mountains through sharp hairpin bends. Delays are frequent as avalanches, rockslides or landslides can block the road for hours. The trucks have to take turns to cross the narrow tunnels and galleries. Still, this is the fastest way to travel from Russia to the Southern Caucasus and beyond.
Travel on the Georgian Military highway
Most travellers will take the Georgian Military Highway to go from Tbilisi to Kazbegi. Kazbegi is famous for the Gergeti Trinity church and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Georgia.
Although it is possible to travel straight from Tbilisi to Kazbegi by bus, taxi or car there are many reasons to take it slow on the Georgian Military highway. There are lots of places to visit along the way. Either as a quick stop or a multiple day side trip.
Few travellers go beyond Kazbegi, let alone make it all the way to Vladikavkaz. In this post I will focus on Georgia only and will discuss all the interesting stops all the way up till the border with Russia. Later on I will explain more about the practicalities of a Georgian Military highway roadtrip.
Where to stop on the Georgian Military highway
Mtshketa is one of the oldest cities in Georgia. It was the capital of one of the first Georgian kingdoms from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD. By that time it was a large fortified city and a center of culture and trade in the region. When Christianity arrived in Georgia it also became a center of religion and it still is the headquarter of the Georgian orthodox church.
Nowadays Mtshketa is a small town with a scenic location at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. Its ancient churches and monasteries are recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its historical importance.
The old town is small, but beautiful. This makes it the perfect day trip from Tbilisi or a convenient stop over on the Georgian Military Highway. Must sees are the Jvari monastery, the Samtavro monastery and the Svetitskhoveli church.
Time needed: 4 hours
Zhinvali lake viewpoint
Zhinvali lake is an artificial water reservoir formed by a hydroelectric dam built in 1986. The deep blue turquoise waters make a perfect picture stop on the Georgian Military Highway.
Time needed: 5 minutes
The 17th century Ananuri fortress saw years of battles and turmoil. It was originally the seat of the Aragvi dynasty, but the Aragvi family were killed in their own fortified castle by a neighbouring clan.
The peasants in the area didn’t really like these new rulers and revolted against them. They invited a king of the Bagrationi dynasty into the Ananuri fortress. He, too, disappointed the peasants and more uprisings followed.
As a result the castle complex was damaged and renovated several times. Within its fortified walls there are two castles and three churches. Some still have traces of the original frescoes that make Ananuri definitely worth a visit.
The fortress is right next to the Georgian Military highway overlooking the Zhinvali lake.
Time needed: 30 minutes – 1 hour
Gudauri ski resort
In recent years, Gudauri has developed into one of Georgia’s most popular ski resorts. Outside the winter sports season there is actually not much to see and do here. The town itself is far from charming and is largely focused on the short period that tourists find their way here.
Gudauri is the highest town on the Georgian Military highway. In summer you could stay here to go hiking, but it is actually better to move on to Kazbegi.
Time needed: if you love winter sports you could stay here for a couple of days in winter, if not there are not many reasons to stop
Russian Georgian friendship monument
After Gudauri the mountain scenery gets more and more spectacular and you will see the massive and controversial Russian – Georgian friendship monument. It was built by the Soviets in 1983 to commemorate the treaty of Georgievsk in 1783.
In this treaty the Georgian king swore allegiance to Russia in exchange for protection. However, relations between the two countries have always been tense. Only 12 years later when the Persians plundered Georgia in 1795, Russia failed to help. It is therefore no surprise that the construction of the monument saw protests from anti-soviet Georgians.
The relationship with Russia deteriorated further after the fall of the Soviet Union. The memories of the war in 2008 are still fresh in everyone’s memory. Nevertheless, the friendship monument is there and even one of the most popular tourist attractions on the Georgian military highway.
From the friendship monument you have beautiful views over the mountains and the valley below. If you love Soviet mosaics, the monument has some of the best in Georgia.
Time needed: 15 – 30 minutes
The Jvari pass is almost 2400 meters high and is the highest point of the Georgian Military highway. Without doubt this stretch has the most spectacular mountain scenery. There is a cross that marks the pass and there is also a small cemetery with German prisoners of war from the second World War.
Time needed: if possible you might want to make a quick photo stop, but make sure you find a safe spot to park your car.
Jvari Travertine Natural monument
The Jvari travertine natural monument is formed by the deposits of sulphur mineral springs leaving behind colourful limestone formations. water still flows down on these travertines and geological processes are still shaping this natural monument that is part of the Kazbegi protected areas.
Time needed: if possible you might want to make a quick photo stop, but make sure you find a safe spot to park your car.
Kazbegi or Stepantsminda is the last big town before the Russian border. At the foot of Mount Kazbek it is one of Georgia’s most popular mountain retreats. Hundreds of tourists find their way to Kazbegi to see the famous Gergeti trinity church or to hike to the Gergeti glacier.
There are plenty of other hikes to choose from in the area and Kazbegi makes the perfect place to base yourself. The homestays and guesthouses in Kazbegi are of superb quality and guarantee a warm welcome as well as delicious homemade Geirgian food.
Time needed: You can see everything in Kazbegi in one day, but if you want to do other hikes in the area you could easily spend a couple more days here.
Just north of Kazbegi starts the 11 kilometer long Dariali gorge that was formed by the Terek river. Right next to the Georgian military highway is a viewpoint where you can make beautiful pictures into the gorge
Time needed: a quick photo stop.
The Dariali monastery is where the Georgian part of the Georgian Military Highway ends. The monastery is relatively new and the complex is huge. Its large size probably has a lot to do with its strategic location right at the border with Russia. There are plans to expand the monastery even further.
It is open to visitors and definitely worth a visit because of its spectacular setting in a narrow part of the Dariali gorge.
Time needed: 30 minutes – 1 hour
The Georgian Military Highway side trips
The following places are not immediately on the Georgian Military Highway, but make for worthwhile side trips if you have the time. To do these side trips it is best to base yourself in Kazbegi.
The entrance to the Truso valley lies 17 kilometers south of Kazbegi and is home to the popular Truso valley hike. The valley is close to Ossetia and you can hike as far as the Zakagori fortress. The 11 kilometer trail goes past mineral water springs, colorful travertines and ancient watchtowers.
How to get there: It makes for a challenging, but rewarding day trip from Kazbegi. If you have your own car you can park it at Kvemo Okrokana. If you travelled by public transport there is a daily shuttle bus organized by Mountain Freaks that should give you enough time to finish the 22 kilometer round trip hike into the Truso valley and back.
Time needed: The Truso valley hike takes between 7 – 8 hours and is a full day trip from Kazbegi
The Sno valley is less popular than Truso valley, but certainly no less beautiful. It is only 4 kilometers south of Kazbegi and there is a road that goes all the way up to the scenic mountain village of Juta.
Juta is the starting point of a number of hikes including the challenging Juta to Rishka hike over the Chaukhi pass. If you are looking for an easy day hike, just hiking towards the peaks of the impressive Chaukhi mountains is beautiful enough.
How to get there: If you have your own transport, certainly make a stop at the village of Sno at the beginning of the Sno valley. Home to a number of giant head sculptures that are the project of Merab Piranishvili. Each sculpture represents an important person in Georgian history, art or literature.
If you travel by public transport, Mountain freaks also has a daily shuttle bus from Kazbegi to Juta and back, allowing for a nice day wandering around Juta.
Time needed: Juta is a nice day trip from Kazbegi. You might even consider staying in Juta to spend a few days relaxing in the mountains.
Gergeti Trinity church
No visit to Kazbegi is complete without a visit to the Gergeti trinity church. For most it is the sole reason to come to Kazbegi. The appeal of the 14th century church lies in its spectacular location. Situated at the foot of mount Kazbek on top of a hill with spectacular mountain views all around you.
With a new paved road all the way to the church, you no longer need to climb up the mountain from Kazbegi, but it also means it now gets hundreds of visitors per day. It is also the start of the 8- 10 hour hike to the Gergeti glacier
Insider tip: go early morning or late afternoon if you want to be there during a more quiet time.
How to get there: you can still do the 1 to 2 hour climb from Kazbegi to the top of the hill where the Gergeti trinity church stands. It is not the most scenic hike though so I recommend you save your energy for the Gergeti glacier hike or other more worthwhile hikes in the area. If you have your own car you can drive all the way up to the top. Plenty of taxis are there to bring you there, in case you don’t have your own transport.
Time needed: the church is small, so you will not need more than 30 minutes to see everything. You might want some more time taking in the scenery and views.
The Gveleti waterfalls are a bit of a hidden secret north of Kazbegi. If you are looking for an easygoing hike away from the crowds, Gveleti is a great destination. There is a bigger waterfall and a smaller waterfall. Both are marked as a 20 or 30 minute hike from the place where you park your car. It took longer for me, but I often made stops to enjoy the landscapes around me.
How to get there: there is no public transport. So you will either need your own car or a taxi that waits for you as you hike to the waterfalls and back.
Time needed: 2 to 3 hours
Georgian Military highway travel tips
How much time on the Georgian military highway
If you want to visit all the stops on the Georgian military highway, you definitely need more than one day. It’s true that you can book day tours from Tbilisi that bring you to Kazbegi and back in a single day, but I would not recommend these. There simply is more than enough beauty along the Georgian military highway and on a day tour you only get to see the tip of the iceberg.
It’s easy to travel from Tbilisi to Kazbegi in a single day with a short stop in Ananuri and the Georgian Russian friendship monument, but other stops require more time. Mtskheta for example has enough to see that it’s better done as a seperate day trip from Tbilisi.
The mountains around Kazbegi are absolutely wonderful. I would recommend at least 2 to 3 days in Kazbegi to fully enjoy the area. I can highly recommend a side trip to either the Truso valley or the Sno valley and Juta. Heading north towards the Dariali gorge and the Gveleti waterfalls is also a very scenic part of the Georgian Military highway.
How to travel the Georgian military Highway
As you can see there are lots of places to stop along the Georgian military highway. How to travel the Georgian Military highway therefore really depends on your budget, the time you have and what you like to see or do.
Public transport – cheap and quick: Travelling by public transport is the cheapest and quickest way to travel from Tbilisi to Kazbegi. Marshrutkas (minivans) leave frequently from the Didube bus station in Tbilisi. It takes about 3 to 4 hours to Kazbegi and the cost is 10 lari (as of October 2019)
Shared tourist taxi – cheap sightseeing option: If renting your own car is not an option, but you still want to make some stops on the way. Your best bet is a shared tourist taxi. They also leave from Didube bus station. For 25 lari shared taxis bring you to Kazbegi. It takes about the same amount of time, but does usually include a short stop at Ananuri and the Georgian Russian friendship monument. Other photo stops are at the discretion of your driver.
Rental car – comfort and flexibility: Renting a car gives you the best flexibility on the Georgian military highway. It allows you to stop wherever and whenever you want and you can explore all the sights on the way at your own pace.
Conclusion: The first time I travelled on the Georgian Military highway I took a shared tourist taxi and went back by marshrutka. The second time I hired a car. Personally, I think the shared tourist taxi is a great option for those with limited time and budget. You can see the Ananuri fortress and the Russian Georgian friendship monument and reach Kazbegi on the same day.
From Kazbegi you can explore the other sights in the area and In recent years it has become easier to do so without your own car. Mountain Freaks runs daily shuttle buses to the Truso valley, Juta and the Dariali gorge. In my opinion, these are the best places to visit around Kazbegi.
So with public transport you can get to see the most beautiful places to stop along the Georgian military highway. Renting a car is certainly not necessary. That said, renting a car in Georgia isn’t that expensive either. It will be more comfortable and give you more flexibility.
Where to sleep on the Georgian military highway
Kazbegi is one of the most convenient places to sleep with plenty of accomodation options. In winter, the ski resort of Gudauri is a good alternative as well.
Both times I visited Kazbegi I stayed at Mariami guesthouse and both times I had some of the best food in Georgia. Filling breakfasts and delicious dinners (on demand). Mariami is also very friendly and the rooms have everything you need.
What and where to eat
Pasanauri: along the Georgian military highway are plenty of places to eat when you are hungry. A cluster of restaurants around Pasanauri are famous for their good quality of Khinkali. These Georgian dumplings are a must try.
Kazbegi: In Kazbegi there is also plenty of choice. Most homestay-like accomodations serve excellent food. When I stayed at Mariami guesthouse I had little reason to explore the city’s restaurants because both breakfast and dinners were so delicious and filling
I did go once to Cafe 5047m and the food there was great too. I highly recommend the Georgian dish chakapuli here. It’s an Ossetian lamb stew with tarragon. I tried it once in Tbilisi too, but the one I had at cafe 5047m was the best.
When to go
In theory the road is open all year long and every season has its beauty. wild flowers in spring, lush greenery in summer, golden colours in autumn and snow in winter.
Because the Georgian military highway is the main trade route between Georgia and Russia much effort is done to keep it operational throughout the year. That said, delays are more common in winter due to avalanches and in spring due to rock falls.
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